"Comedy teams!"

Zack Norman--who was Danny DeVito's mustachioed, crocodile-crazed sidekick in "Romancing the Stone"--was musing on the resurgence in screen comedy buddies. He was especially aware of high-profile pairings like DeVito and Joe Piscopo in the recent $10 million-or-so "Wise Guys" and Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman in the upcoming $30 million-or-so "Ishtar."

That's because Norman's recently wrapped "Chief Zabu" creates another comedy team--Norman and Allen Garfield. But "Chief Zabu" is very low profile: It's directed by unknowns Howard Zuker and Neil Cohen, from a script Cohen wrote with yet another unknown, Nancy Zuker. It has no distributor yet. And it came in for under $200,000.

Still, Norman is betting there's no relationship between cost and mirth.

"I'm wondering--quite seriously--if 'Zabu' won't end up being every bit as funny as the higher-priced pictures," he said.

The answer to that question will come, as they say, in the fullness of time. Some questions that can be answered right now are:

Who are these people and what is "Chief Zabu"?

Why has it been headquartered at Bard College, the 750-student artsy-craftsy Hudson Valley alma mater of Chevy Chase and Blythe Danner that Mary McCarthy satirized in "The Groves of Academe"?

And how can a film full of high-priced character actors--Ed Lauter ("Raw Deal"), Allan Arbus (the "MASH" series' shrink), Shirley Stoler ("Seven Beauties") and Ferdinand Mayne ("Pirates") in addition to Garfield ("The Cotton Club") and Norman--be made for less than $200,000? Or, if you must know the truth, $187,996.

Howard Zuker is the name--his real one--that Zack Norman uses when he's doing the New York and Florida real-estate deals that have subsidized his acting career. Norman also used it when he and his "Sitting Ducks" director, Henry Jaglom, "presented" (i.e., arranged financing for) "Hearts and Minds," the Oscar-winning 1974 Vietnam-themed documentary. And he's using it now for his film-directing debut with "Chief Zabu."

"A few years back," Norman recounted the genesis of the new film, "one of the hustlers I know came to me and said, 'Mergers and acquisitions aren't where it's at anymore; where it's at is countries .' He suggested I look into the commercial possibilities in Namibia, an area in South West Africa that was trying to achieve independence of South Africa, and had just applied for membership in the U.N.

"I went to a press conference, at the Sherry Netherland Hotel in New York, for the leader of the independence movement, Chief Clement Kapu, a press conference that for some reason was attended by Elizabeth Taylor." Taylor had earlier focused her interest and beneficence on Botswana. "Well, Namibia was not admitted to the U.N., but I was convinced that what I saw that day was a springboard for a zany satirical comedy which could also be--with the right characters--a comedy with a lot of heart."

So convinced that he and Neil Cohen, an ex-agent and off-Broadway playwright ("Rat's Nest"), dropped the domestic drama they were scripting together and invited Nancy Zuker, Norman's wife, to develop the new idea with them.

Namibia became the fictional Polynesian island of Tiburaku, Norman said, "because nothing to do with Africa, and particularly South Africa, is funny. And Kapu, who I'm sorry to say died under possibly suspicious circumstances in Namibia not long after his visit to New York, became Zabu." Neil Cohen said that, as played by Manu Tupou of "A Man Called Horse" and "Hurricane," Zabu "is emerging as a character with a great and touching dignity."

The other principals are decidedly less dignified but, the film makers hope, are touching in their scrambling desperation. They include: Norman's manic, percentage-spouting realtor and his woebegone boss-friend (Garfield); Arbus' where-it's-at-is-countries promoter; Stoler's culture-vulture hotel credit manager; Lauter's ne'er-do-well millionaire's son, his libidinous wife (model Lucienne Buchanan) and their quite literally closet-gay butler (Mayne); and a do-gooding actress, now more Fonda than Taylor (Marianna Hill of "Medium Cool").

How the actors happened to come together to shoot "Chief Zabu" at Bard College has a lot to do with Screen Actors Guild, and with Neil Cohen, Allen Garfield and producer Norman Leigh.

Leigh, who has worked as a high-budget cinematographer ("The Brink's Job") and a low-budget director ("Schizoid"), took one look at the $200,000 Zack Norman had raised for "Zabu" and mentally translated it into a different movie from the one that Norman and Neil Cohen envisioned.

"Zack and I," Cohen admitted, "saw a guy with a camera strapped to his back and a sound man following the actors around."

"I said," Leigh recalled, " 'Don't go for what you think a low-budget movie should be like--go for more.' Screen Actors Guild has this new program according to which you can hire SAG actors for less than half of scale (currently $1,256 a week) and mix them with non-SAG actors and extras if your budget is less than $200,000." (Your project, said Joe Santi of SAG's New York office, must as well be "experimental or non-mainstream"--porn films need not apply.) "You must not have a distributor lined up in advance, and if the film eventually goes into wide distribution, the actors' salaries go up to scale. Our SAG actors, who are getting $550 a week or slightly more than SAG requires, also have a piece of the profits."

So does Bard College, in exchange for the right to shoot on the campus, over a three-week period, scenes that take place in New York's Plaza Hotel; two New York apartments; the city's public library; a Long Island mansion and a radio station in Polynesia. (A fourth week of shooting will take place on actual New York locations, and a smaller unit will shoot Polynesian exteriors at a later date.)

The only up-front cash payment to the college is for the dorm lodging and dorm food shared by the film's actors and its 50-person crew, comprised half of non-union professionals and half of Bard students. Payment to the students is in the form of hands-on film making experience, seminars led by the pros, and a course credit.

Though Leigh saved about $5,000 (or one-third) on film-stock costs by buying re-canned "short ends," he decided not to skimp by shooting in 16 millimeter. "A 35-millimeter camera," he said, "makes for a difference in attitude on the part of the actors. With 35, they have a sense that it counts."

"I think it counted even earlier on," Neil Cohen added, "when we were approaching actors and their agents, though a lot of agents refused to show the script to their clients, just on the basis of the numbers."

"Yeah, I love making a ton of money doing big pictures," Garfield said. "But if I believe in a film, as I did with 'Desert Bloom' which we did for hardly anything, I'll do it. I liked the human comedy of 'Chief Zabu'--the genuinely loving relationship with Zack's character and the fact that at the end my character has an unexpected romantic and spiritual elevation. He not only ends up with the movie actress, he develops a political and civic conscience.

"I so liked the script that my old friend Neil sent me," Garfield continued, "that I not only said yes, but I tracked down Manu Tupou, whom I've known for 15 years and never worked with, I tracked down Marianna Hill, I tracked down Ferdie Mayne. I must have cast eight or 10 roles in the film."

For other roles Neil Cohen drew upon his acquaintance with Shirley Stoler, whom he once represented, and with Ed Lauter's agent. He followed his magazine-art-director girlfriend's suggestion that he look at models for the part of Lauter's wife, and he and Zack Norman interviewed 47 before settling on bubbly, blond Lucienne Buchanan.

"It was the chance to play comedy," said Lauter to explain why he subjected himself to lumpy mattresses, institutional food and a break-neck shooting schedule. "I started out as a stand-up comic but in Hollywood I've pretty much been pigeonholed as a heavy."

"It's to gain experience," said Lucienne Buchanan, who had small parts in Paul Mazursky's "The Tempest" and "Trading Places" and whom ABC has just signed to a one-year contract with an eye to developing a comedy series for her. "And I get to play the harp, which I've studied for 15 years."

"I must admit that, rather selfishly, I wanted to get out of New York," Shirley Stoler laughed. "But what I found here was an atmosphere that was completely unselfish. And Zack Norman"--who mostly deals with the actors while co-director Cohen maintains an overview of the film--"works with you in such a friendly, respectful way."

Zack Norman the artist certainly doesn't mind these compliments to himself and his film, but the hustling Howard Zuker in him is quick to say: "And let's not forget that with the profit participation everyone has, there's a tremendous upside potential in 'Chief Zabu'!" Certainly more than in "Wise Guys," possibly more than in "Ishtar."

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